Does that make us an elitist? It certainly might, especially in light of the following: We read the Sunday Times (sometimes on Sunday). We rarely drink alcohol, but when we do we prefer expensive dark beers brewed in Portland or Belgium or some other foreign place. We have been hunting a grand total of three (3) times in our life (although we own a serviceable array of firearms and enjoy repairing to the Piney Woods for their lawful discharge--all in preparation for the day our daughter starts “dating”) and we go fishing maybe an average of twice a year (although we’d certainly like to go more often, and occasionally voice that desire aloud, usually on days like the ones we’ve been having lately). We did not go to an Ivy League college---we somehow managed to wring a degree from the state-funded diploma mill in our hometown---but we have at least a passing acquaintance with the works of Wittgenstein and Hegel (not in the German, of course). We have never read a John Grisham novel. Of these facts we are neither proud nor embarrassed. We have passed through that portal into the place where we pretty much couldn’t care less (or is it could care less?) what anyone else thinks of us, pro or con, with some few notable exceptions.
So, yes, we fear we might be an elitist---we prefer to think of our self as a member of the natural aristocracy, of course---a designation that automatically disqualifies us from pursuing a late-life career in electoral politics (among many other disqualifiers). If you (like us), have a life so attenuated that you devote one or more waking hours to the viewing of MSNBC, then you are aware that the “elitist” descriptive now has been tied snugly around the neck of the callow Obama, as it was around the protruding Adam’s apples of John Kerrey and Al Gore (although for Obama with considerably less debilitating effect than the likely deadly Judas Kiss of the Rev. J. Wright). No less an observer than Pat Buchanan---and we’re not being facetious here, as our coozan Pat is probably the most astute spectator of the political sport in the entire USA (and a likely Hillary voter in a McCain-Clinton match-up, we’d wager)---has suggested the elitist image that now has Obama walking with a crutch will soon have him rolling in a wheelchair.
Perhaps Pat saw the film clip of Meredith Vieira---Meredith Vieira of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire fame!---asking Obama whether he had “fire in the belly” or “arugula** in the belly?” (Was that a line she borrowed from Maureen Dowd?) We forget how Obama replied, but it was not the appropriate answer. He tried to answer the question by avoiding it, as an elitist would. The non-elitist reply would’ve been: “That’s the stupidest goddamn question I’ve ever heard.” Then Obama could’ve pulled out one of his secret cigarettes and fired it up---smoking being a decidedly non-elitist pastime these days---and blown second-hand smoke right up the nostrils of the pert patrician nose of Meredith Vieira. The election would’ve been over! McCain probably would’ve withdrawn and even Clinton would have had to finally let go.
That exchange typified how the leveling of the “elitist” charge has become just another trump card, perhaps the ultimate one, in the great American con game of status: a member of the communications elite needling a member of the political elite with the suggestion that he’s a latent elitist. It reminded us of the time we saw conservative author and talk-show chick Laura Ingraham butter up Imus (in those longed-for pre-Morning Joe days) by telling him, “Yeah, you look a NASCAR fan---I could see you at the track, wearing a cap ….” Something like that. Imus, who dropped out of high school to join the Marines, is in fact a NASCAR fan (when we said we “can’t sit still for NASCAR” we meant “NASCAR really sucks”). Ingraham, arbiter of regular-guyness, went to Dartmouth and clerked for a Supreme Court justice.
Obama, of course, is not of the once-dominant East Coast aristocracy of cold-blooded WASPy financiers and politicians that produced our current president but rather of the less class-bound aristocracy that sprang from the post-War Baby Boom meritocracy, elevated not by lineage but rather by high SATs and Ivy League degrees and, for those who pursued a career in Democratic politics, an unfortunate proclivity for do-as-I-sayism and the pressing urge to assume the moral high ground in almost any political argument. And Obama isn’t really an elitist in that latter-day sense, although Yale law graduate H. Clinton comes off as a midnight-to-6 waitress when compared to him. We saw that clip of the Illinois senator fooling around on the basketball court with the North Carolina team and we noticed he can actually play. Pick-up basketball is no elitist pastime. (Obama said that the Heels’ Tyler Hansbrough went easy on him while guarding the senator; we assume that meant Hansbrough was only guarding Obama’s white half.***)
The accusation of elitism long been a problem for left-of-center politicians, as Jeff Greenfield reminded last week in a Slate essay on George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the author’s first-person account of life among coal miners and their families in 1930s England (a book that every young person should read---NOW!---along with Down and Out in Paris and London). Orwell, a small-s socialist and the 20th century’s most perceptive critic of totalitarianism and imperialism, sought to explain socialism’s unpopularity among the British working class thusly, according to Greenfield:
But things are much changed since Orwell’s time. The author, who elsewhere in his writings was equally contemptuous of vegetarians and “sandal-wearers,” died from TB at 46 (after years of smoking like fiend and getting shot in the throat in the Spanish Civil War---he was a guy who was willing to put himself out there). If born a half-century later, we bet Orwell would be pursuing a low-cholesterol diet and walking the treadmill at the health club at 6 a.m., although he’d likely just do it and shut up about it. As for Obama---it just shows once again what a great country this is when a half-black man from Hawaii can rise to become an arugula-eating elitist.
"As with the Christian religion," [Orwell] writes, "the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents." Then he wheels out the heavy rhetorical artillery. The typical socialist, according to Orwell, "is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism, or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler, and often with vegetarian leanings … with a social position he has no intention of forfeiting. … One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." (Think "organic food lover," "militant nonsmoker," and "environmentalist with a private jet" for a more contemporary list.)Real working-class folks, he says, might be drawn toward a socialist future centered around family life, the pub, football, and local politics. But those who speak in its name, he says, have a snobbish condescension toward such quotidian pleasures—even condemning coffee and tea. "Reformers" urged the poor to eat healthier food—less sugar, more brown bread. And their audience balked. "Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like organs and wholemeal bread, or [raw carrots]?" Orwell asks. "Yes it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would rather starve than live on brown bread and more carrots … a millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits. An unemployed man doesn't."
Orwell also rails against the condescension many on the left display toward those they profess to care most about. Describing a gathering of leftists in London, he says, "every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses."
*We actually had some this evening, leftovers from our vegetarian daughter’s to-go plate.
**For non-elitist readers, this is fancy-pants lettuce.
***Unsophisticated vaudeville humor for the 21st century.